Theatre Royal, London, UK
Tetchy easy listening duo Air make their debut live appearance in a West End theatre. But are they happy? Pas de tout!
It's a couple of hours before showtime and French duo Air, despite making music that suggests differently, look anything but calm. Stresslines make easy work of otherwise smooth foreheads. "It is very difficult for us," says Nicolas Godin, in English that becomes less pidgin every day. "We are being pulled in a lot of direction." He then stalks off towards the dressing room where he aims to find an empty chair and collapse into it, but this proves complicated as the room is literally strewn with piles of brand new Levi's gear.
"They sponsor the tour," he says, between yawns. "But we don't wear this on stage. We're not complete arsehole, you know."
His partner, the more affable Jean-Benoit Dunckel, explains that their schedule has simply careened out of all control. Due to the constant pressures of promotion, they haven't been home in months. "Our girlfriends are here today," he says. "We were supposed to meet them but," a helpless shoulder shrug, "no time, no time."
In the 11 months since the release of the Parisians' exquisite debut album, 'Moon Safari,' which took such disparate influences as The Beatles and Debussy and entwined them like a vine, they've now become connoisseurs of classy easy listening - not only is it the coffee table album du jour, but also the perfect post-club soundtrack - while they themselves are regarded as the new kings of Gallic cool, the beret having left Daft Punk's head and found theirs.
"Not so," argues Dunckel. "Sometimes we are upset, we are nervous, we are violent. This is not cool at all. And the album is, we feel, not as good as you think. For us it is no longer fresh. We are bored, we need change."
All of which goes a little way to explain the Air live experience, for it's rather unusual. Flanked by four musicians, all dressed exclusively in white, the pair come on to the theme tune to 'Close Encounters,' while Godin, having relocated his sense of humour, addresses the crowd with a vocoder that makes him sound not unlike Stephen Hawking.
Unofficially split into three distinct parts, it begins rather tediously, the sound so soporific that the entire audience teeters on the brink of coma. But halfway through 'Kelly Watch The Stars,' things change, and they become as camp as Julian Clary's underpants, speeding things up towards a delirious 78rpm, while Dunckel assaults the theremin with a pressure that makes it wail like a dying cat. The effect is truly dazzling, and also hysterical. This is kitsch set to music.
Then, 'Sexy Boy' heralds another style change, which settles somewhere between electro and Kraftwerk, one band member even leaving his organ to indulge in a robotic dance not seen in London since 1981. And then they wind the clock even further back to the mid-'70s, creating a great vat of keyboard noodle noise that recalls the unwelcome memory of Jean-Michel Jarre and hideously bloated Pink Floyd.
"For us it is all about experiment," claimed Dunckel earlier. "Live, we change everything. We mess it up. Is good, no?"
Well, it's certainly eclectic.